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Francesco De Sanctis (1817-1881)

de sanctis imageThere are a few things about Francesco De Sanctis that one naturally admires. He was a towering intellectual of the 19th century in Italy and is still recognized as one of the greatest scholars of Italian language and literature. (Interestingly, one of his students, Benedetto Croce, is also on that list of great men of letters). That's fine, yes, but we all know that there are fine minds who spend their time deconstructing puns in 18th-century French poetry who live in ivory towers while the world goes to hell around them; thus, there are a few other reasons to admire De Sanctis.

He was a trouble maker! De Sanctis was one of those interesting persons from southern Italy who agitated for constitutional government and the eventual unification of the still fragmented Italian states in the days when such a stance could cost you exile, imprisonment, and even your life. He was born in the town of Morra d'Irpino (renamed Morra de Sanctis in his honor in 1937), a town still pretty much up in the mountainous sticks of the eastern part of the Campania region near Avellino. His father had a degree in jurisprudence and owned a small piece of property. His two uncles, one a doctor, the other a priest, were exiled from the Kingdom of Naples for their parts in the carbonari revolts of 1820-1, just as Francesco, himself, would go into exile for similar anti-government activity during later troubles in 1848. (One should note that in both cases these episodes were not revolutions to otherthrow the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies; they were attempts to pressure the absolute monarchy into granting a constitution and a parliament. Both 'revolutions' failed, and the situation took another turn.)

De Sanctis was a precocious child, studied privately, and then went to high school in Naples. He then started his own academy, and his reputation as a scholar spread. His activities in 1848 landed him a three-year sentence in a Bourbon prison, where he promptly requested a German grammar book so he might learn German and translate Goethe's Faust into Italian. (That will make three years fly by real quick!) He then went into exile in Torino, and his reputation as a lecturer on Dante brought him the appointment of professor at Zürich in 1856. He returned to Naples in 1860, shortly before the kingdom was taken by Garibaldi and annexed to the Savoy state of Piedmont-Sardinia to form modern Italy. He became the minister of public instruction for the new nation of Italy in 1861 and also in that same year became a deputy in the Italian chamber (i.e. a member of parliament). He served again as the national minister of public instruction in 1878 and 1879. At the University of Naples, he became its first professor of Comparative Literature. His writings encompassed much of European literature, from the distant Dante and Petrarch to his own contemporaies such as Zola, Leopardi and Manzoni as well as German philisophers such as Hegel and Schopenhauer. His philosophical writings include Art, Science and Life, and his monumental Storia della letteratura italiana (History of Italian Literature) was published in several volumes, some after his death. De Sanctis died in 1883 in Naples.


His political views are expressed in The South and the Unified State and Political Parties and Education in the New Italy. As minister of education, he campaigned for free compulsory education for all in an attempt to fight the high rate of illiteracy in Italy at the time. I don't know if he was ever an ardent Republican or ardent Monarchist, but he was an ardent liberal, in the European sense of the time—that is, he believed in constitutional government and that the people, in general, should have access to the mechanisms of government. We should remember that De Sanctis had lived through a great period of Reaction in the Kingdom of Naples—the restoration of the absolutist Bourbon state after the fall of Napoleon. His own family had paid a price, and he, too, had paid one for his own activites. He would not sit still when more reaction threatened. In times of unrest, he stood his ground. Within days after the failed anarchist attempt on the life of King Umberto I, the right wing in Italy was clamoring for repression of the so-called "anarchist plot"—round up the usual suspects, bust up the printing presses, bust some heads, take charge of the school system, etc. etc. De Sanctis stood up in parliament and said:

"Gentlemen...if reaction comes, you can be assured that it will not openly announce itself as such. When it comes calling, it won't say, I am Reaction. Look at history; all reaction has used the same language—'we need real liberty, but for that we need to reconstitute the moral order and defend the monarchy from these small groups.' Those are their tired clichés, and we all know their history. Those are the trite words that reaction uses when it shows its face."


I am not aware that De Sanctis' reputation as a scholar or defender of human liberty has diminished with time. His works are still read and highly regarded. His student and admirer, Croce, edited and republished some of De Santis writings in the early 1900s and in 1917 published a bibliography of De Sanctis' works in celebration of his one hundredth birthday. There are a few schools in Naples named for him and monuments in his honor.

Finally, I did run into a person who said, "I don't like him."
"Why?" sez I.
"He didn't like Leopardi, and I love Leopardi!"

I can sense that I am about to drown in my own ignorance in this conversation, so I stealthily sneak out the collected works of Francesco De Sanctis that I always carry with me for just such occasions and see, indeed, that Francesco has written an 1851 essay called Schopenhauer and Leopardi, an attempt to (a) reconcile or, maybe, (b) not reconcile the pessimism of Schopenhauer with Leopardi's melancholy. The essay contains these lines:

"Leopardi and Schopenhauer are the same thing. At almost the same time, one invents metaphysics and the other, the poetry of pain. Leopardi sees the world in a certain way and doesn't know why; Schopenhauer figures out why by discovering the Will."

This is above my pay-grade.


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